Equiano was now accustomed to his new life, especially given the kind treatment by Pascal, which allowed his fear to ebb. Equiano’s English got much better, and he considered the white men’s society and manners to be superior to his own, so he strove to improve himself. He had long wanted to learn to read and write but he had never had the chance. When he returned to London, however, the Miss Guerins sent him to school
With growing familiarity, Equiano ceases to fear that he’ll be eaten or killed; instead—and understandably, given his curiosity and adaptability—he is drawn towards the culture of his captors. His designation of it as “superior” should be understood in the context of the opportunities now open to him.
The Miss Guerins told Equiano that he could only go to Heaven if he were baptized, which made him uneasy, since he had a vague understanding of what that meant. He shared this with one of the sisters, and she told him she’d insist to Pascal that Equiano be baptized. In February 1759, then, he was baptized in Westminster.
Having learned about Christianity, and eager to participate in the new customs around him, Equiano joins the Christian religion. It’s a complex moment that shows the tension between forced colonization and free agency.
Equiano accompanied the Miss Guerins all throughout London, though sometimes he stayed by Westminster Bridge with Pascal. There, he played outside with other boys, and once he nearly drowned when he fell from a small boat into the Thames (he was saved by a passing boatman).
Short anecdotes like this point to Equiano’s insecurity, lacking a true parent figure, but they are also examples meant to flesh out his life as a precocious boy prone to troublemaking like any other.
Soon the ship Namur was again ready to go to sea, and Equiano was sorry to leave his schoolmaster and the sisters, who had taught him to read and instructed him in religion. In spring 1759 they sailed for Gibraltar, where Equiano went ashore and, as he often did, related to a few people the story of his kidnaping and separation from his sister. Here, a man told him he knew his sister, but on being led to her, Equiano saw that she was a black woman from another country.
Equiano may find it relatively easy to assimilate to English life (and he has adapted to this life well), but ultimately his time and decisions are not his own—they are subject to the will of his master, Pascal, even if Pascal isn’t cruel like the slave sailors. The international aspect of the slave trade also emerges from this anecdote.
Meanwhile the ship Preston came to Gibraltar from the Levant, and Pascal told Equiano he might see Dick again. But Equiano learned from the Preston’s crew that his companion was dead; Equiano was given some of Dick’s belongings as a memorial. In Gibraltar he saw strange things, too, such as a soldier hanging by the heels.
The friendships that Equiano has forged while a slave have been strong, but also fragile and subject to both the dangers of seafaring and the pain of separation.
They continued up the Mediterranean to Barcelona, which proved charming to Equiano. They then went to Toulon to intercept a fleet of French battleships and there was an impressive battle: two French ships were sunk, though their sailors mostly survived. They sailed back to Gibraltar where, one night, there was a rumor of a French fleet approaching. They hastily prepared the ship and set off after the fleet, chasing it all day before finally managing to fire at the commander. This started a battle, and Equiano was stunned by the loud guns. After what seemed like an eternity, they triumphed over the French, taking three ships captive, while the others fled, though they eventually managed to set fire to a few of them. During this next battle, Equiano saw a number of his companions blown to pieces, and Pascal was wounded, but Equiano took solace in recognizing that even his own death would be part of God’s plan.
Another genre that could categorize Equiano’s narrative is the travel memoir, which grew in popularity in the eighteenth century due to the increased possibilities for travel and international exchange (often related to the slave trade). But while Equiano pays attention to the sights as a kind of early tourist, his travels are also more than sightseeing: here he participates again in a skirmish related to the battles between England and France. Equiano positions himself firmly on the English side, as he risks his life for the country. This helps to account for some of his growing attachment and sense of belonging to the nation.
After the battles, Pascal and Equiano moved from their ship to another, the Aetna fire-ship, where Equiano was well-treated and had time to work on his reading and writing. The King died around this time, which prevented their next expedition and meant that they were stationed at the isle of Wight until the beginning of 1761. Equiano found the island quite delightful, and, while he was there, a young black slave was thrilled to see another of his countrymen, and ran to Equiano to embrace him. Although Equiano was initially unnerved, they became friends and saw each other often until he left.
Again, Equiano emphasizes the way in which national interests come to press closely on his own experiences. Rather than shunning England as a result of his captivity, he finds greater power in embracing the world of his masters and working within it as best he can. This anecdote also underlines the alienation of being dark-skinned in a place where that is rare.
During this time, Equiano began to see everything marvelous or extraordinary as proof of Providence. John Mondle, a rather immoral seaman, was an example of this. One night Mondle awoke so afraid that he couldn’t remain in his cabin: he’d been warned by St. Peter in a dream to repent. One of his shipmates laughed at him, but Mondle vowed to stop drinking liquor and to begin to read Scripture. Despite this, he was still agitated: at seven a.m. a cry was raised that the ship was about to be dashed by another, a forty-gun ship called the Lynne. Mondle raced up to the deck, and just then the ship rammed into theirs, hitting the middle of Mondle’s cabin. Had he not been disturbed by Providence, Equiano concluded, Mondle surely would have died. Though all feared their ship would sink, the crew managed to save it, keeping it afloat until it arrived at Belleisle to be repaired.
Equiano has learned about Providence—that is, the work of God intervening in human affairs—through the Miss Guerins, who encouraged him to be baptized. Providence is a helpful and useful framework for him to make sense of the world around him, a world in which people often only narrowly escape from death or danger. Naturally bright and curious, Equiano seeks out reasons to account for extraordinary events (just like the reasons masts push ships onward or why a quadrant works) and he finds Providence to be a compelling answer.
This anecdote reminds Equiano of another, at Plymouth in 1758 when, one night, a woman nursing a child fell from the upper deck into the hold. Though all assumed she’d die, she wasn’t hurt—nor was Equiano when the same happened to him. Equiano saw the hand of God in such affairs.
Again, moments of danger and near brushes with death lead Equiano to seek an explanatory framework for such events, pushing him further towards the Christian faith.
After repairing the ship, the crew prepared to embark, but they were prevented by the arrival of more French ships. Their own lieutenant was killed in the ensuing battle. Equiano was ordered ashore to acquire the materials necessary for a siege, so he witnessed the battle from afar. But cannons soon began to be shot in his direction, so he ran away, sneaking along the seashore. He happened to come across a horse, which he couldn’t make go faster than a slow trot. Then he encountered another Englishman, who helped him by whipping the horse so severely that the horse raced away—Equiano was amazed that he wasn’t hurt.
Equiano is not on the ship himself for the frightening battle, but he too faces danger while he’s ashore looking for materials. Much of the narrative has been (and will continue to be) composed of brief episodes and anecdotes, as Equiano relies upon the popular genre of the adventure tale (related to the travel narrative) that concerns itself with a strong protagonist fighting against hostile elements.
Equiano’s crew besieged the citadel until it surrendered in June and they took the island. Equiano witnessed many battles over the next months. The next year, the ship was sent to Guernsey, where Equiano happily spent time with his old hostess and her daughter, before continuing on to Portsmouth and then to London, where they learned they’d be paid. Equiano, like the others, was thrilled to hear this, thinking he might finally be able to complete his education.
The battles between England and France continue, and Equiano, though subjugated by English traders, ironically comes to play a vital role in defending England’s national interests from its own imperial enemy. At the same time, Equiano is aware that his best chances for freedom and independence lie in education.
While still aboard, a sailor named Daniel Queen grew attached to Equiano. Queen taught Equiano to shave and to dress hair, and he explained Bible passages to Equiano, during which Equiano realized that the laws of his own country were to be found almost exactly written in the Bible. He would often tell Queen of this resemblance, and he began to be known as the “black Christian.” Sometimes he was even called by Queen’s name. Equiano loved Queen like a father, and, when Queen said he would instruct Equiano in his business, Equiano began to hope that Pascal—who, after all, treated him kindly and seemed concerned about his moral education—might finally free him.
Equiano has already shown an interest in the commonalities between Jews and Africans. Here he’s not thinking about how one group might descend from another. Instead he’s inspired by such resemblances, which seem to suggest that Africans too have access to the universal salvation that Christianity claims for everyone, and which he now believes in. This is a powerful way that Equiano seeks to reconcile his two cultures and traditions.
In December the ship arrived in London. As it sailed into port, Pascal suddenly forced Equiano into a barge, saying he had to prevent Equiano from escaping. Stunned, Equiano asked if he could get his books and clothes, but Pascal said that Equiano couldn’t leave his sight. Equiano said he was free—that Pascal couldn’t by law treat him like this—but Equiano’s words enraged Pascal even more. Pascal steered to a ship heading to the West Indies, under Captain James Doran. After Doran and Pascal deliberated, Doran announced to Equiano that Equiano was now his slave. Equiano countered that he could not be sold: though his master did buy him, he has served Pascal for many years while Pascal has taken his wages. Besides, now that he’s baptized no one has a right to sell him—he’s heard a lawyer say so. Doran said Equiano spoke too much English, and if he kept at it Doran would find other ways to silence him.
Pascal’s sudden betrayal is terrifying and shocking to Equiano, who had begun to believe that it might be possible to be freed by a master who treated him better than many white masters. Here, though, Pascal’s kindness turns out only to mask an even greater cruelty: knowing he has far greater power than Equiano, and that he stands to benefit personally from selling Equiano away, he loses any humanitarian streak he may have had. Equiano mounts a powerful case for himself by basing his arguments on the very laws and traditions of England, but to no avail.
Pascal took away Equiano’s coat, leaving him with only the nine guineas – a type of coin – he’d managed to save over the years. After watching Pascal go back to the barge he threw himself onto the deck, distraught.
Usually so at ease with language, Equiano, at this point, is so betrayed and frustrated that language itself fails him.